Robert Whale


The Daily Expositor, published at Ontario, gives the following in its issue of July 5th, 1887 shortly after Robert’s death:-
In the pretty little Cornish town of Altarnun, was born in March 1807 (at Tregunnon Farm), Robert Whale, RA. the subject of this sketch. Very early in life he exhibited a love for painting, and his drawings, when quite young, attracted the attention of a merchant in the village named Pearse, who afterward became his first patron, paying him for portraits of himself and children painted by the eleven-year-old artist. Mr Whale derived much inspiration from seeing a collection of paintings in the possession of Squire Saville in Okehampton. His brother, at the time, was engaged in painting this gentleman’s house, and young Robert accompanied him. Being given access to the rooms where the paintings were, he worked assiduously, copying the work of the great Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose deep, warm, rich colouring was peculiarly pleasing to the young artist, and was a distinctive feature of his own work for many years. Mr Whale lived with his father on Trebray Farm, and painted a number of portraits, including one of his father, which is still to be seen at the old “Farm,” being in the possession of a relative. Sir Coleman Rashleigh of Prideaux House, early noted the ability of the young painter and commissioned him to paint a full length portrait of himself. Sir Rashleigh had several of his earliest essays, and a number of his latter productions. The present Sir Coleman Rashleigh also evinced much admiration for Mr Whale’s work and a splendid full-size portrait of the latter in a shooting costume with dog and gun, adorns the walls of Prideaux House. Among his patrons in his native place beside the Rashleighs were Sir Joseph Groves Sawle, Bart; Lord Vivian; Mr John Henry Vivian, Swansea; Mr Joseph Trefry, Fowey, and many of the leading clergymen and professional men of that and adjoining counties.

He studied at different times in the National Gallery at London, and was employed by private gentlemen to copy pictures hanging in that Gallery. His was a native talent. He had no teacher but his artistic eye and has, most thoroughly demonstrated his thorough purpose, and the distinction a man may achieve who labours with an aim. Since his removal to Brentford in 1876, his home has been with his daughter, Mrs John Whale, at the foot of Church Street. His studio there was almost daily visited by his admirers, chief of whom was Dr JY Bown, Ex-MP., a gentleman of culture, and like the aged artist, one of the old school. He was a diligent worker and a very rapid painter, and was rarely to be seen at home without a brush in his hand. His first work after coming to this country was a large portrait of his nephew, JH Whale. Portraits 0f Lawrence Daniel, Esq., and Mrs Whitehead and Lester, old Barford pioneers, were the first local products, and these are reckoned today among the best works, having been painted with the deep, warm colouring he admired so much in Sir Joshua Reynolds’ pictures. His style was changed somewhat after this, and his painting can be selected in any collection by their distinct individuality in colouring. The Canadian artists contempory with him admired him as a man and as an artist, but of late years he fraternised very little with any of the younger artists.
In Brantford he numbered among his patrons and admirers Dr Bown, Dr R Henwood, Dr Digby, the late Chief Justice Wood, of whom he painted a splendid life-size portrait; Judge Jones, Hon. AS Hardy, Provincial Secretary, and scarce a home of any prominent citizen but contains one or more of his productions. George Burton of Toronto, CJ Brydges, late of the GTR, Montreal, Isaac Buchanan and Mrs Ferris of Hamilton, from the mountain painted specially for Mrs Ferris, is among his very finest works.

His work is seen all over the Province of Ontario, and much of it has gone to New Hampshire, where he loved to sketch White Mountain scenery. Miss MR Braddon, the novelist, was an admirer also of Mr Whale’s work.
Whoever exhibited his paintings have always won prizes. Among those he prized most were a silver medal awarded him at the Polytecnique, Falmouth, England, several years ago, for a group of children; and honours for several landscapes exhibited at the International Exhibition, London, England, 1862. Several years ago he was made an Associate of the Royal Academy of Artists. He retained his artistic excellence to the very last, his eye was as clear, and his hand as steady; and a little landscape just begun, rests on his easel, which had been admired by Mrs Henwood, and was intended for that lady. Only the sky is finished. His last portrait was one of Miss Gladys Hardy, the little daughter of the Provincial Secretary, and his last finished painting a view of the Niagara Falls, secured ere it was finished by Dr Brown, his most intimate friend. Many of the prettiest bits of scenery along the Grand River and Whiteman’s Creek have been put on canvas by the late artist, which in after years, will undoubtedly become very valuable pictures. Mr Whale never attempted anything of a historical nature, confining himself to portraits, animals, and landscapes. His work has, for many years been unqualifiedly successful at our largest Canadian exhibitions, and his name had become almost a household word throughout the Province.

In the year 1837, Mr Whale married a young lady, Ellen Heard of Bideford, England, and in June 1852, came to Canada, and this country. They took up their residence in the little village of Burford, and lived there continually until the death of Mrs Whale, in 1871. In 1870, Mr Whale paid a visit to England, and after the death of his wife took his son Robert “home,” to complete his education, remaining there with him some four years. John had moved his family to the nearby town of Brantford, where Whale established a family studio that employed his sons John Claude (1852-1905) and Robert Heard (1857-1906) and his nephew John Hicks Whale (1829-1905), all three of whom went on to establish professional careers of their own. From this base they submitted work in various genres to the annual provincial fairs, winning many prizes, and travelled the western Ontario circuit as itinerant portraitists and landscape painters. His death, which occurred on Saturday, July 2nd., was the result of heart disease, from which he had suffered a great many years. He was confined to his room about three weeks, and at last passed quietly away, deeply lamented by all who knew him. He was most considerate and thoughtful for others, possessed an amiable and affectionate disposition, and was deeply loved by his own family. On Monday, his mortal remains were taken to the little Congregational churchyard in Burford village, where his wife, brother, and several other members of his family lie buried, for interment. His grave was hollowed beneath the shade of overhanging maples within a stones throw of his old home. He leaves four sons and two daughters, George, a farmer in Sombra, Christopher, in Carleton, Ont., John C, an artist, living at St Thomas, Robert, Master of painting and drawing at the Model and Normal School, Ontario, and Mrs JH Whale, of this city, and Mrs George Catton, Burford.
He was a sincerely good man and lived an irreproachable life. Deeply in love with his art, he sought the good opinion of men only in that direction, and a kind allusion to, or an admiration of his works, was always sufficient to open his usual calm reserve and warm him sufficient towards the speaker at once. The world has too few such men.


Post & News, August 11, 1957: Looking Back: P & N – 6th August, 1887: Mr Robert Whale, ARA., who died in Canada on August 2nd, was a native of Altarnun, having been born at Tregunnon Farm, in 1807. He won honours for landscape at the International Exhibition in London in 1862.

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